1984 was a hard time for the miners of the North-Eastern coal-mining town of Durham. With the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher forcing the closure of a vast majority of Britain's inefficient coal mines, a long and ugly miners strike ensued. With the father and brother of Billy Elliot working down the mine, times were hard for the family as the men joined the often violent picket lines whilst struggling to make ends meet. And with Billy expected to carry on the family traditions of working down the mine and boxing, neither of which appealed to him, nor was he any good at the boxing, he was having trouble finding a way of truly expressing himself.
So when a soup kitchen for the striking miners is set up in Mrs. Wilkinson hall, she and her ballet troop end up sharing the same hall as Billy and his boxing friends. After a particularly good pasting in the ring Billy is forced to stay behind to practice on the punch bag and leave the hall keys with Mrs. Wilkinson. But Billy finds himself inexplicably drawn to the music and the ballet class being taught opposite and he's soon in amongst the giggling girls giving it his best efforts. Mrs. Wilkinson immediately picks up on Billy's talents and she encourages him to return the following week. Not being wanted to be labeled a "poof" Billy is at first very hesitant to return, but return he does and he finally discovers an outlet to his talents. However, his strict and traditional father would go totally ballistic if he knew what Billy was doing and when Mrs. Wilkinson lines Billy up for an attempt at gaining a place at the Royal Ballet School in London, all hell breaks loose.
The picture is bright and colourful with a high level of detail and some rich and vibrant colours throughout. Black levels are good enough, although certain indoor scenes can suffer from too much contrast at times which results in a number of grainy scenes. Edge enhancements and outlining can also be a bit of a problem at times, especially during some of the brighter outdoor scenes, whilst the print also suffers from the occasional problem with dust specks and other forms of print damage. Never the less, given it's budget origins, it's probably to be expected and as a result it's not too much of an issue and it certainly doesn't distract your enjoyment of the film.
As director Steven Daldry was very keen to point out during his commentaries in the various extras, Billy Elliot was produced on a very tight budget and as a result the post-production process didn't allow for too much time or money to be spent on creating a particularly dynamic soundtrack. And it's a pity really as certain scenes, such as the rioting miners and their other altercations with the police, had the real potential of sounding much better than they ultimately did.
Still, given that it's a heavily dialogue based film it doesn't necessary mean that the 448 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a total failure. Far from it. The dialogue is crisp and clear in the centre and front channels, which is extremely important if you're to decipher some of those northern accents, whilst the surround and other channels are kept reasonably busy by the presence of the extensive musical talents of T-Rex, The Clash and The Jam. Out of interest, it would have been interesting to hear just what a DTS version of the soundtrack could have offered, and given that Universal tend to include such a track on the majority of their releases, it's a bit of shame that one is not included.
The animated and scored menu system is kept to a similar theme across both discs and, clearly taken from the film, is accompanied by some audio of a grunting Billy Elliot as he dances around the room. Given the spread of material across the two discs the menus are clearly and sensibly laid out, after all there's not too much to show or choose from on the first disc. Still, in the usual annoying menu system from Universal, dwell too long on a menu and you'll soon find yourself watching the film again.
Originally released in cinemas back in 2000 it's a little strange that a Special Edition DVD has been released so soon after the previous DVD release in 2003. However, there is a good enough reason for this as there's the new Billy Elliot : The Musical to promote. But rather than simply repackaging and re-releasing the previous release this Special Edition has been bolstered with an additional selection of extras promoting the musical, as well as carrying over the extras from the original film.
Whilst the film, with no extras what-so-ever, is contained on the first disc, the film is given that Special Edition treatment by supplying all of the extras on a second disc. But considering that director Steven Daldry is on hand to provide a commentary for the various deleted and extended scenes on the second disc, I find it a little odd that he didn't find the time to provide a commentary track for the main film. After all, with no additional audio tracks or overly long film to contend with, the disc capacity is hardly creaking at the seams. Its omission is made all the more puzzling by the large amounts of interesting information he supplies in the other extras. It would have been a worthy addition to the package and is a definite missed opportunity.
The extras are split into three sections, The Musical, The Film and The Music. Starting in The Musical section, in the surprisingly interesting twenty minute The Real Billy Elliot Diaries featurette the first three boys, James Lomas, Liam Mower and George Maguire, who were selected to play to role of Billy in the stage show are interviewed. The feature also includes footage of the trio going through the audition process, attending the Billy Elliot Saturday School in Leeds and also relaxing at home with their down to earth families. Having written the music for the show, Sir Elton John is also on hand and even offers some interesting parallels with his own career, whilst some footage from the Royal Variety Show gives a small indication of what to expect from the musical when it finally opens its doors.
Next up is twenty minute From Stage To Screen feature and a behind the scenes look at what it took to get the show to the West End. As per the previous featurette, both director Stephen Daldry and song writer Sir Elton John are on hand to elaborate further, with plenty of praise from Elton for everyone involved. Again, for those people who are interested in the stage version of the show, or even West End theatre in general, will find plenty of things of interest. And those who aren't? Well, considering I'm not a fan of the theatre, I found The Musical section very interesting indeed and certainly worthy of a look in. The section is rounded off with a 30-second advert for Billy Elliot : The Musical.
In The Movie section, the same twenty minute Breaking Free : The Making Of featurette which appeared on the original DVD release is repeated here. But never having seen the film, or the original disc for that matter, it was quite an interesting feature to watch. Given that the budget was tight, and some clever forethought from somebody involved in the project, there's a surprising amount of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast members Julie Walters, Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis and director Stephen Daldry. It all adds up to quite an interesting insight into the film and, in particular, the talents of Jamie Bell. However, it is spoilt somewhat by a typically annoying and somewhat patronising American narrator.
Next up are the Deleted and Extended scenes. Running for twenty minutes in total and split into three sections, one for Billy, Tony and Dad, director Stephen Daldry is on hand to provide an interesting optional audio commentary. As is the case for most deleted scenes, Daldry mentions that the cuts were made for timing and pacing purposes, but he still manages to explain the scenes with great aplomb and seems genuinely disappointed that they were dropped from the film.
However, given the good quality of the video and audio it wouldn't have taken too much effort in the editing suite to tidy things up a little and it would have been nice to see them restored to the actual film. Also included is another five minute section of Extended scenes, again with an optional audio commentary. Given that the audio commentary is extremely interesting it is a great shame, and even a bit of a mystery, as to why Daldry didn't provide a commentary track for the main film.
In the final, and frankly rather bizarre, twenty-minute The Music section, director Stephen Daldry is again on hand to provide a useful commentary on the songs used in the film. Essentially, it is simply the sections from the film where the music of T-Rex, The Clash and The Jam was used. As well as discussing the scene where the piece of music was used, it is usually accompanied by groans from the director as to how much it cost to use and how much hassle was involved in getting permission to use it. Again, it's yet another interesting commentary and it continues to raise that query on the audio commentary for the main film.
Whilst I'd be hard pushed to class Billy Elliot as a true British cinematic classic, it is still one of those delightful and up lifting films which the British film industry is so good at producing. It's also not hard to see how its young star, Jamie Bell, became such a household name and the winner of a British Academy Best Actor Award. Even the film managed to be nominated for 3 Oscars and 13 BAFTA awards as it surprisingly attracted audiences at both home and abroad, breaking many box office records across the world in the process.
Although some people may scoff at this release for its shameless attempts at a cash in with the musical, with the large amount of attention that the musical it is bound to bring, this new release is bound to find plenty of new homes. Never the less, if you already own the previous release and are not particularly interested in the musical then you'd be hard pushed to find a reason to buy this new version. However, if you don't already own a copy then you should certainly consider adding Billy Elliot : Special Edition to your collection. Highly recommended, even without that audio commentary it deserves.
- The Real Billy Elliot Diaries
- From Screen To Stage
- Breaking Free : The Making Of
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
- The Music